Report – Advancing Human Rights at International Borders

Last week, representatives of the Global Coalition on Migration (GCM) traveled to New York City to welcome the release of a new document on human rights at international borders. “Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights at International Borders,” was published by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and was released as a conference document during the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly.

This new document is the product of an important collaboration between OHCHR and civil society, including members of GCM. For over a year, OHCHR and its civil society partners worked together to compile existing rights and obligations enshrined in international law and to demonstrate how protection of these rights should be applied at international borders.

The Guidelines set out a series of recommendations for governments to implement human rights-based border governance mechanisms, including implementing human rights training for border officials, legislating mechanisms to ensure accountability of private actors contracted to provide border management functions, and establishing procedures for the reporting of human rights violations that occur at borders with provisions for access to justice.

Importance of this document for migrant communities and civil society

The Guidelines do not set out new rights nor do they change states’ human rights obligations. However, the document gives migrant communities and civil society organizations an advocacy tool to highlight the human rights crisis at international borders. It reaffirms that borders are not “zones of exception,” and that no appeal to national security or the sovereign right to control borders excuses the persistent and dangerous disregard for the human rights of those crossing borders.

In addition to assisting civil society in holding governments to account for their human rights obligations, the Guidelines have great potential to serve as a popular human rights education tool, such that migrant communities are aware of their rights in border zones.

OHCHR launches the Guidelines

OHCHR’s public release of the Guidelines took place at two side events: one in Brussels and one at the UN Headquarters in New York City. Speakers at the New York OHCHR event included Mr. Ivan Šimonović, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights; H.E. Mr. Thomas Mayr-Harting, Ambassador, Head of the Delegation of the European Union to the United Nations; Mr. Francisco Carrión-Mena, Chairperson of the Committee on Migrant Workers; Mr. Udo Janz, Director of UNHCR Office in New York; Ms. Michele Klein Solomon, Permanent Observer of IOM to the United Nations; and Ms. Catherine Tactaquin, Executive Director, National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. The event was chaired by the Representative of the Permanent Mission of Argentina.

The speakers reflected on the crisis at international borders, with many referencing the recent deaths of migrants at sea, particularly in the Mediterranean where thousands have died attempting to reach Europe and hundreds of thousands have been rescued from sinking vessels. Affirming that states have the sovereign right to determine who enters their territory, the panelists agreed that such functions must only be carried out in compliance with international law and with respect for human rights.

Speaking in her capacity as Executive Director of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and as a representative of GCM, Catherine Tactaquin highlighted the voices of those who work along the US-Mexico border daily.

Christian Ramirez, Director of the Southern Borders Community Coalition:

As nation states continue to criminalize migration and militarize international borders it is imperative for the international community to ensure that nation states uphold their obligations to uphold human rights and human dignity. Tragically, the rights and dignity of border residents have been trampled upon by policies and strategies that militarize communities, disrupt daily life, and endanger the rights of border residents and migrants. The tens of millions of people who call the boundary between Mexico and the United States home are heartened by the OHCHR’s concerns over the state of human rights in our region.

Isabelle Garcia, Attorney & Public Defender, Spokesperson for Coalición de Derechos Humanos:

As borders across the world become highly militarized and policed, basic human rights, including the right to life itself, are being trampled in an unprecedented and alarming fashion. From the wholesale unnecessary deaths of thousands of border crossers to the painful separation of families, communities along the Arizona/Sonora border live the direct consequences of US policies, economic restructuring, and the indifference, ignorance, and fear of the US body politic. It becomes imperative that governments and the international community focus on the human rights crisis occurring at the crossroads of our intersecting and conflicting interests played out on these fragile and battered regions. It is here where this document can be most useful, allowing affected peoples to raise human rights principles to bring justice and dramatic change in the management of borders.

Eduardo Canales, Coordinador, South Texas Human Rights Center:

These principles and guidelines can help to challenge “the cloak of secrecy on detaining and processing migrants by the border patrol, practices that are decidedly punitive and discretionary. Clearly the initiative to create this document has been more than welcome and encouraging for policy advocates and those working every day in border environments to ensure the safety and well-being of all migrants. The principles locate human rights and non-discrimination at the centre of border governance.”

Ms. Tactaquin emphasized the importance of popularizing this document and its potential for brining about tangible changes in border governance that will help to save lives.

We will not be satisfied with these pages being a nice document drafted in 2014 but that remains largely invisible and that will not play a role in shifting the narrative of human rights at international borders.

GCM celebrates the release of the Guidelines with partners in New York

Following OHCHR’s launch event at the UN, GCM hosted a celebration and interactive discussion, endorsed by OHCHR, at the Church Centre for the United Nations. Leonardo Castilho (OHCHR) contextualized the document and highlighted its core elements. He emphasized the migrants’ rights is one of the OHCHR’s main priorities.

Human rights are not reserved for citizens only or people with visas. They are inalienable rights of every individual, regardless of his or her location or migration status.

Jamil Dakwar (ACLU) participated in the drafting of the Guidelines. He spoke about the negotiating and drafting process for the Guidelines in response to the crisis at borders, emphasizing that this document is an attempt to hold governments accountable for their obligations under international law.

…violations against migrants and people crossing borders happen in areas where it’s hard to document what’s happening, it’s hard to monitor, it’s hard to shed light, it’s hard to hold accountable those who are committing those violations, it’s hard to reach even, because these are sometimes dangerous areas. The very mere fact of thinking together with civil society, international agencies, and states of ways to strengthen existing mechanisms is a great step forward.

Diego Morales (CELS/GCM), in a video message, spoke about his organization’s role in the formulation of the Guidelines. Reaffirming that border zones are not zones of exception, he called attention to the fact that borders are zones where some of the worst human rights violations occur with impunity. Emphasizing calls for due process and strict regulations to guard against violations perpetuated with impunity, Mr. Morales expressed the support of CELS and its regional partners in South and Central America for this document.

…we consider it important to support this process, and this event being held alongside the discussions at the UN today. The consolidation of these principles and guidelines in the framework of human rights for migrants can increase the possibility of protection in border zones, where historically a huge number of rights violations are committed.

Yanira Chacón-López (NALACC/GCM) brought forward the perspective of how these Guidelines connect to the work of migrants rights advocates working at the grassroots, and their potential impact on migrant communities. Yanira spoke about her work with migrant women in Long Island, New York, focusing on the struggles migrant families face in crossing the border with their children. She drew attention to the way in which border enforcement extends beyond border zones, as increasing numbers of undocumented migrants are issued electronic ankle bracelets as an alternative to the expense of detaining them in holding centres until deportation. Yanira spoke of the humiliation and psychological effect of such devices on migrants and their families. She also spoke about the barriers to access to education for undocumented children in the US. She expressed optimism that the Guidelines could be used in public education efforts such that migrants would be better aware of their rights.

Many thanks to our sponsors for this event: Endorser: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) / Co-soponsors: American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS), Colectivo PND-Migración, DRUM South Asian Organizing Center, Families for Freedom, Migrants Rights International (MRI), National Alliance for Latin American & Caribbean Communities (NALACC), National Network for Immigrant & Refugee Rights (NNIRR), NGO Committee on Migration, Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM), and United Methodist Women (UMW).